If you were unaware that March is Disability Awareness Month, rest assured that you’re not alone. With so much going on in the world, paying attention to inequities among the disabled community may not be as thrilling as the collapse of financial institutions—nevertheless, awareness-themed months shine light on the importance of certain social issues.
National Disability Awareness Month officially began in 1987 after President Ronald Reagan declared Proclamation 5613, urging individuals and organizations to offer support and equal opportunity to people with disabilities. Most humans strive to feel productive and to live fulfilling lives, so helping one another accomplish life goals like these is a worthwhile mission.
Image Source: Society of Children's book writers and illustrators
March being National Disability Awareness Month is a time to promote inclusion and an opportunity to heighten awareness around the barriers people with disabilities face. This month, join Ava in creating a more equitable world for disabled communities by taking proactive steps to improve accessibility and bridge inclusion gaps in the workplace.
Statistically Significant Gaps
Individuals who live with disabilities have proven valuable in various job positions. However, compared to any other segment of society, they face the highest rates of unemployment.
- The unemployment rate for people with disabilities in 2022 was 21.3% compared to 65.4% for those without a disability.
- At least 25% of people with disabilities live below the poverty level.
- People with disabilities are less likely to get hired.
- In 2022, 30% of workers with disabilities were employed part-time, which is twice the rate of 16% for those without disabilities.
- Nearly 8 in 10 disabled people were not in the labor force in 2022.
- The market of disabled people is bigger than China's population (1.85 billion people) and still growing.
- Of those with disabilities, Deaf people are more likely than hearing people to be self-employed due to the barriers they face in the workforce.
There is a disproportionate makeup in the workforce — one that unfortunately leaves those who live with disabilities underutilized. The employment rates for the disabled community or people with special needs rose in 2022, signaling progress. Increased independence in the disabled communities can be accomplished when employers advocate for awareness, and provide disabled adults with opportunities to secure occupational livelihood.
Image Source: Visually
Barriers Preventing Disability Workers from Participating in the Workforce
Negative prejudices and biases pertaining to intellectual disabilities creates significant barriers for people with developmental disabilities. This kind of misinformed thinking, coupled with unwelcoming corporate cultures, is prevalent in most industries. Discrimination impacts the equity equation and the lives of those with disabilities who are seeking employment or who are currently employed.
Biases not only hurt disabled job seekers or employees, but can also negatively impact the employer and company as a whole. Companies that fail to hire individuals with disabilities or underutilize their skills miss out on opportunities that could ultimately benefit their company’s profitability and success.
It's time for employers to recognize the potential and value that individuals with disabilities bring to the workplace and create inclusive environments that allow everyone to thrive.
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Reversing the Disability Employment Disadvantage
Actively Support Disability Inclusion
Disability inclusion is a social responsibility that ensures all members of society have equal access to opportunities, services and experiences. It promotes social justice and equality, providing a platform for individuals with disabilities to contribute to their communities and realize their full potential.
Evaluate what you and your organization are doing — or are not doing — to support disabled employees and their contributions. Develop initiatives to improve your efforts and create a plan to keep disabled employees involved. If there are no accessibility practices in place, put some in motion. It may be necessary to run an accessibility audit for your website or application. Partnering with a national or global campaign such as Disability:IN or Valuable 500 may be helpful.
Image Source: Valuable 500
Organize a Disability Awareness Event
Hosting an event can be a valuable way to enlighten people without disabilities about the various types of disabilities. It can also help identify any biases and misconceptions within an organization, and introduce techniques for better communication. Collaborating with a qualified professional, such as a DEI coach who can offer expert advice can lead to more affective outcomes.
Using language that acknowledges and respects an individual's disability while focusing on their abilities and strengths is important. For instance, "hearing impairment" is not utilized much in the Deaf community. This approach emphasizes the person's humanity and capabilities instead of defining them solely by their disability. Using preferential language can reduce stigmas and foster a more inclusive environment among employees.
Do not hesitate to ask disabled employees what language is preferred for communications. Learning sign language basics can make Deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals feel more comfortable and cultivate a feeling of acceptance. Not only does this increase disability awareness, but it also breaks down communication barriers. It demonstrates a commitment to inclusion and a willingness to learn and adapt to the needs of others, promoting a healthy work culture of respect and understanding.
Adjust Hiring Practices
Individuals with disabilities make up the least employed segment of society. If you’re an employer, expand your hiring practices to close the gap. Employers who fail to make accommodations during the hiring process may inadvertently exclude disabled candidates and perpetuate workplace barriers. By offering accessible applications, providing accommodations during interviews, and considering alternative qualifications, employers create a hiring process where disabled candidates can compete.
Image Source: Autistic Women Nonbinary Network
The greatest impediment to cultivating an equitable workplace is the lack of disability education. To address this issue and effect change for diverse communities, it’s essential to increase knowledge on the subject, which can be accomplished with the following:
- Events for employees, including informal educational experiences and discussions
- Employee Resource Group awareness posts
- Formal trainings
- Assistive technology demonstrations
By introducing these initiatives, employees can learn about the resources available and how to access them. Organizations should always showcase the tools and resources they have developed to support disability inclusion. Often, employees are unaware of the full range of applications and accommodations that are available. When support mechanisms are in place, a safe space exists for disabled employees to feel a sense of belonging and community life.
To ensure that every employee feels fully supported and included, it’s crucial to provide managers and leaders with training on how to attract, hire, retain and develop talent with disabilities. Give managers and supervisors the opportunity to attend company-wide training sessions provided by the accommodations, accessibility or Human Resources team. Sharing relevant policies, including the process for providing reasonable accommodations to employees, through videos or guidelines, can be a valuable tool.
Assume responsibility for empowering employees with disabilities by establishing new opportunities, channels, and programs for them to contribute to and be heard.
An Employee Resource Group for disabled employees that is accessible to the entire company, regardless of whether they have a disability can serve as a platform for individuals to share experiences, insights and suggestions.
Perspective and feedback is valuable for disability awareness and education. Develop messaging channels within the company that focus on various types of disability or accessibility/A11y conversations to facilitate discussions around disability-related issues.
Organizations can also establish an internship cohort or rotational program with the aim of converting recruits into full-time employees. Doing so provides individuals with disabilities a chance to gain valuable work experience, develop new skills and demonstrate their abilities to potentially secure a full-time position within the organization.
Foster a Culture of Acceptance
Some intellectual and development disabilities are not always apparent. Chronic pain, mental health or hearing loss are examples of disabilities that may not be visible, but can impact an individual's ability to perform without necessary accommodation.
One of the biggest challenges for individuals with “invisible” disabilities is the stigma that surrounds them. Many people still hold stereotypes and misconceptions about invisible disabilities, which can make it challenging for individuals to disclose their condition and seek the support they need. To combat this, create a culture of acceptance, understanding and community participation so that all employees feel valued and supported.
Image Source: Great Careers
Lean Into Assistive Technology Tools
Assistive technology can provide invaluable support for disabled workers, enabling them to perform their jobs effectively and efficiently. By leveraging these tools, organizations can build a more inclusive and accommodating work environment for those that need it the most.
Depending on employees’ specific needs and requirements, companies may benefit from introducing:
- Screen readers for disabled workers with visual impairments, which convert text into speech, allowing individuals to hear what is on their computer screen. Screen readers can be useful for reading emails, documents, or other digital content, and can significantly improve productivity.
- Speech recognition software which can be helpful for individuals with mobility issues such as muscular dystrophy, and anyone who is unable to use a keyboard or mouse. This type of software allows individuals to control the computer using voice commands, enabling them to write emails, browse the internet, and perform other tasks without the use of their hands.
- Speech-to-text software for employees who need spoken words converted into digital text. Assistive technology like speech-to-text is useful for individuals who are Deaf, hard-of-hearing, have difficulty concentrating, speak English as a second language, or have trouble lip-reading. Speech-to-text apps like Ava are a good solution for organizations that support an inclusive and accessible environment.
Image Source: Ava
How to Celebrate Employees & Colleagues with Disabilities
To foster awareness, showcase content written by and about employees with disabilities to your stakeholders, partners, and customers. Alternatively, launch a social media campaign or publish a newsletter highlighting specific employee contributions to demonstrate a commitment to inclusion.
Share content across marketing channels that feature inclusive design initiatives. Consider posting videos highlighting accessibility leaders or disability rights advocates in the form of an event or webinar. Person centered goals are important for National Disability awareness month, or any month.
Circulate a Disability Etiquette Guide
Educate your organization and raise understanding by providing resources and company-wide communications to spread awareness for how best to work alongside colleagues with diverse needs. Training videos that bring awareness to key issues are valuable for employees to reference throughout the year.
Celebrate National Disability Awareness Month by designing creative material to celebrate your company’s disability-inclusive workforce. Digital graphics or physical signage for business communications can help spread the message throughout your organization and to your customers.
Start a Conversation
One of the easiest ways to raise awareness is to talk about disability inclusivity and employment. Not only is it an effective way to dispel misconceptions, but it helps demystify it, and promote best practices. Devote a full-team meeting to an open discussion on disability inclusion, allowing team members to ask questions and share ideas. Encourage employees who have a disability to speak about their experiences if they are comfortable doing so.
Acknowledge the Power of Diversity
Individuals with disabilities offer a unique perspective and approach to the world, providing a valuable advantage to any organization. The diverse range of disabilities and experiences of those with disabilities brings new perspectives and approaches to addressing business challenges. To recognize National Disability Awareness Month, celebrate by:
- Embracing disability inclusion
- Promoting innovative thinking
- Recruiting from this talent pool
- Developing a more comprehensive understanding of your employees
- Providing accommodations for workers with disabilities
Transforming Accessibility in the World Today
With the continued disparities between people with disabilities and those without, it remains obvious that one of the best ways to improve the eligible worker pools is to raise awareness, improve education and increase inclusion and accessibility efforts across the entire workforce.
Universal accessibility for people with disabilities is still a long way from being achieved in the world. Disability is a complex, multifaceted, and pervasive phenomenon that can manifest in various ways — it can be visible or invisible, caused by genetics or accidents, and either temporary or permanent. Disabilities can be related to cognitive, psychological, physical, or sensory changes, and may be experienced through chronic or mental health conditions.
Despite these differences, individuals living with disabilities have the right to enjoy life with equal opportunity.
The celebration of National Disability Awareness Month should not merely be about signaling support for inclusion and accessibility. This month should serve as a catalyst to take action in accelerating opportunities for individuals with disabilities to thrive, and to celebrate those that have made and continue to make significant impact in the world.